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Maine gov wants unemployment system probe

Glenn Adams, Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) -- Maine Gov. Paul LePage said Wednesday he's establishing a special commission to investigate the state's system of paying benefits to jobless workers, amid criticism he tried to influence decisions on unemployment claims.

"Let's take an in-depth look at the state's entire unemployment compensation system to make sure that it is fair and consistent for all Mainers," LePage said in announcing his executive order to create a blue ribbon commission. He said the commission will include representatives of employees and employers and its mission is to ensure that the state's unemployment system "provides benefits for workers who are rightly entitled to them"

"We welcome the opportunity to examine the system and make sure it is doing what it is designed to do: administer unemployment compensation in a judicious way that benefits both employers and employees," LePage said in a statement. "The people of Maine deserve to know that their system works for everyone."

LePage's announcement comes in the wake of criticism that the Republican governor pressured unemployment hearing officers, who decide unemployment benefit appeals, to decide more cases to favor business. The Maine Employment Lawyers Association, whose members represent workers in unemployment benefit appeals cases, has asked federal labor officials to look into the claims.

Much of the criticism stems from a Blaine House luncheon the governor held in March with hearing officers, in which he reportedly said they overlooked information that skewed the outcome of cases, often in favor of workers. The luncheon meeting was also attended by Jennifer Duddy, chairwoman of the Unemployment Insurance Commission, and Labor Commissioner Jeanne Paquette.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said Wednesday that no one was pressured during the meeting and the governor's intent was to urge hearing officers "to follow the letter of the law."

Legislative Democratic leaders questioned the timing of LePage's decision to form a blue ribbon commission, saying it seemed premature when a federal investigation in under way.

"It seems like a hastily arranged public relations ploy to divert attention from a potentially very serious problem," said House Majority Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham.

In his statement Wednesday, LePage labels the request for a U.S. Labor Department investigation into the luncheon meeting as "politically motivated."

"This orchestrated effort is designed to distract Mainers from the real issue, which is inconsistencies in the unemployment system. But I remain focused on assuring Mainers that there is fair and consistent application of the law throughout the process. That's why I am calling for an all-encompassing investigation of the entire system," LePage said.